Image: Israeli Ruvik Rosenthal
Ariel Schalit  /  AP
Israeli Ruvik Rosenthal, the author of a Hebrew slang dictionary, says that Hebrew’s small vocabulary means borrowing from other languages becomes a must.
updated 11/17/2005 9:01:41 AM ET 2005-11-17T14:01:41

The English “spin” becomes “speen,” plural “speenim.”

The language of Moses has also absorbed “blind date,” “under control” and “hacker” (pronounced hah-cker), along with some 10,000 other words and expressions that have been compiled in a dictionary of Israeli slang, a best seller since it came out this fall.

The hefty hardcover tome reflects the onslaught of foreign words in the age of globalization and the struggle of modern Hebrew — revived as a spoken language just a century ago — to adapt an ancient vocabulary to modern times.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for one, doesn’t like the trend. A while back, on Hebrew Language Day, he complained that the once ubiquitous Hebrew farewell “shalom” has largely been replaced by “yalla, bye,” an Arabic-English hybrid. He also chastised the satellite and cable TV companies “Yes” and “Hot” for choosing foreign names.

The guardians of proper Hebrew do not seem to be overly worried.

Hebrew is flourishing and has proven its adaptability, said Avraham Tal, deputy director of the Academy for the Hebrew Language — known in Hebrew, ironically, as the “academia.”

Seeking to stem the use of foreign words, experts at the academy have been inventing Hebrew alternatives for words such as “conditioner.” From time to time, the nation’s top linguists present their creations to the academy’s plenum, where favorites are adopted by vote, often after stormy debate. A few times a year, the academy publishes a list of new words and asks state radio and TV to use them.

Everyone uses shampoo
Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the language adviser at Israel Radio, said it is easy enough to introduce words in newscasts and other programs, but that does not always mean they will take hold.

“Every word has its fate,” said Tal, acknowledging quite a few of the academy’s creations have fizzled, such as Hebrew substitutes for “video” and “jingle.” A belated effort to get the public to accept a Hebrew word for shampoo seems doomed from the start.

Almagor-Ramon said politicians and ad copy writers are among the worst language offenders.

“There is no way to correct them,” she said, noting that in a recent radio ad, a Labor Party legislator refused to use the formal Hebrew substitute for “primaries,” arguing that no one would understand him.

Journalists do not seem to be far behind in the list of culprits. In a recent front-page article, political commentator Ben Caspit complained about what he said was the foreign minister’s manipulation of the press and his habit of posing for photographers in distant “locationim.”

The author of the “Comprehensive Slang Dictionary,” Ruvik Rosenthal, said Hebrew’s relatively small vocabulary — around 150,000 words, a fraction the size of English — encourages borrowing.

Rosenthal, who writes a weekly language column in the Maariv daily, mined some 800 Web sites, hundreds of books as well as TV and radio broadcasts for his dictionary. He also consulted with specialists on subcultures — criminals, youth, computer nerds, the ultra-Orthodox and soccer fans.

'Sababa' slang
The biggest contributors to slang are English, Arabic and Yiddish.

Arabic rules emotional expression — “ahla” (great), “walla” (true), “sababa” (cool), “ashkara” (for real) — as well as the most emphatic curses. With the rise of Oriental culture in Israel after decades of European domination, Israelis feel at ease using Arabic words, despite their ongoing conflict with much of the Arab world, Rosenthal said.

Some of the Arabic already found its way into Hebrew in the 1930s and 1940s, absorbed by children of Zionist pioneers who wanted to blend into the region and distance themselves from their parents’ Diaspora upbringing.

English dominates computers, high-tech, dating, fashion and sports. “Yesh lo touch,” (he has the touch) a sports commentator has been heard saying of a talented soccer player.

Car mechanics use mangled English, a throwback to British rule when cars first came to the Holy Land: brakes become “breksim,” a back axle is a “back ax.” Following a strange logic, a front axle is a “back ax kidmi,” literally a front back axle.

German still rules in construction, going back to 1920s and 1930 when builders and architects immigrated from Germany to pre-state Palestine. Today, Palestinian and Chinese construction workers communicate on the job with words such as “stecker” (plug) or “spachtel” (spatula).

A little something extra
Yiddish, still a strong source of slang with about 1,200 words in the book, offers some of the juiciest insults, such as “freier” (sucker), “shtinker” (informer) and “nudnik” (pest). However, some of the words are fading away, or are now used only by ultra-Orthodox Jews, Rosenthal said.

In a gray zone between slang and standard Hebrew, some foreign words are squeezed into the corset of Hebrew conjugation: to subsidize becomes “lesabsed,” to zap TV channels is “lezapzep,” to discuss is “ledaskes,” to torpedo is “letarped.”

Most Israelis know the boundaries between slang and standard Hebrew, and there is nothing wrong with the flourishing of slang, said linguist Rafael Nir.

“It’s definitely a sign of how alive the language is, not necessarily a sign of the deficiency of the Hebrew language,” he said. “Slang gives it something extra.”

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